By-elections put Corbyn in spotlight
Copeland in Cumbria largely voted to leave the European Union last year. Source: Wikimedia
UK by-elections in Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent Central on February 23 are seats defended by the opposition Labour Party following abrupt resignations. Both constituencies have voted Labour since 1935 but both voted to Leave the EU last June by a wide margin. Both areas have seen the Labour vote declining, meaning they present a serious challenge to the enfeebled party leader Jeremy Corbyn.
The ruling party normally loses its share of the vote at by-elections, as people demonstrate their dissatisfaction in the knowledge they are not selecting the next government. The public seizes the chance to express dissatisfaction. Governing parties almost never gain seats in by-elections, but the Conservatives are confident in Copeland.
Prime Minister Theresa May’s party has not performed strongly in by-elections since the EU referendum but Labour won a slim 6.5-per-cent majority at the 2015 election.
The Stoke contest is not a straight fight between the two main parties. The UK Independence Party pushed the Conservatives into third place in 2015, with 23 per cent of the vote. The constituency has a large student population which would not normally be expected to vote Ukip. But the area has significantly above-average levels of deprivation and relatively few graduates, pointing towards Ukip’s strong performance.
Paul Nuttall, Ukip’s new leader, is the candidate in Stoke. Ukip won two by-elections in Clacton and Rochester two years ago but Ukip’s general record in by-elections is poor.
But Nuttall is bullish: “After the launch on Saturday we went out and we were literally mobbed on an estate by people coming out of their houses to shake our hands and say ‘Thank God you’re here’.”
“People were shouting ‘Good on you!’ from their windows. People in Stoke have basically come to the conclusion that if they elect another Labour MP in this seat it will just be like groundhog day. It will be the same thing over and over again. This is the capital of Brexit and it can now become the capital of change if it votes Ukip on February 23.”
In four by-elections in Labour-held seats since the 2015 election, Ukip’s share of the votes has remained unchanged on average. The party’s prospects may be better in Stoke, given that it voted Leave last June by a margin of roughly two to one. Conservative Leave voters might be persuaded to back Ukip.
The Liberal Democrats are positioned as the main pro-EU party but whether the party can win support outside solidly Remain areas remains to be seen. In council by-elections the Lib Dems have made some impressive gains. On January 12 there was the shock council election gain from Labour in Sunderland, which had voted Leave last year. In Stoke the Lib Dems have never outperformed their national vote share but support for them could affect other parties.
Both contests are tests of Corbyn’s leadership and how popular he is in Labour’s traditional heartlands.